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New Media Technology Increases Pressure To Get the Story Right

The impact of new media technology on foreign policy is becoming a significant problem for journalists, governments, and the public at large.

The development of faster, smaller, cheaper television equipment has transformed the way we get our news headlines. Nowadays, whether the story be in space, on the Israeli-Lebanon border, or in Chechnya, we expect to see it unfolding on our TV screens, via satellite, as it happens.

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But the new immediacy of this reporting poses some serious challenges as the media drive diplomatic negotiations and even military operations. Governments and policymakers are under pressure to react to instant reports that could lack perspective, and even turn out to be wrong.

Print reporters have the luxury of longer deadlines than television reporters have, but even they get things wrong. When they do, they point out that journalism is but the first draft of history. Television takes its cameras live to the scene of the story, and the camera theoretically does not lie. But the camera often captures only a narrow slice of reality.

What the immediacy of the coverage means for journalists is that the consequences of getting the story wrong are now much more awesome, and the responsibility for getting it right is much greater. It is a subject of increasing concern and discussion. In the past several months, panels examining the impact of the new technology on the news and foreign policy have been staged at Boston University, the annual convention of journalism professors, and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Harvard University has produced a study on the implications of the new technology for war correspondence.

The Vietnam War was described as the first that brought combat into the living rooms of America. That was true, but it was still before videotape. After the the film was shot at the front, it was flown back to Saigon, then flown out of the country for transshipment to New York and processing, so several days elapsed. There was time for reflection and correction.

Today, as we learned from the Gulf war, there is no such time- lapse. A correspondent reports live from the desert. The miracle of satellite transmission from a portable transmitter means that his report can be presented instantly to a television audience of millions.

But what if his report is wrong, as was the case in the Gulf war with an initial report of chemical weapons in an incoming Scud warhead?

What if the pictures are accurate but report only one segment of the story? That was the case in Somalia, where gruesome pictures of dead American rangers changed American foreign policy. The images on TV triggered an American withdrawal. Other nations followed suit. Overlooked was the ongoing successful distribution of humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis elsewhere in the country, which was why the US went there in the first place.

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What if a news anchor juxtaposes a hostage negotiator with a White House official live on split-screen (as was the case with a hostage-taking in Lebanon) and requires instant US response from an official who may not have all the facts, and who certainly may want time for reflection?

TV journalists say that by the time the United States is involved in its next military operation, they will be able to carry what it takes to set up a portable transmitter from the battlefield in a couple of suitcases instead of half a dozen boxes, as at present.

Barrie Dunsmore, the former ABC correspondent who authored the Harvard report on future battlefield coverage, says the issue for the military is whether live coverage might imperil the troops. Retired Gen. Colin Powell told Mr. Dunsmore that if his mission were jeopardized by live coverage he would arrest the reporters. "I'd have locked all of you up," he said, "and you could have taken me to every court in the land. And guess who would have won that battle? I mean the American people would have stripped your skin off."

Thoughtful men and women in journalism are trying to figure out how to avert such dramatic confrontations.

There are already anchors who refuse to air tape or read bulletins because they doubt the accuracy of the content. That takes courage in the face of competitive pressures.

One thing most journalists seem agreed upon is that both correspondents and editors dealing with international news need the experience and background to make intelligent decisions on a split-second basis. Says one network veteran: "We can't neglect audience appeal, but the emphasis must be on substance and depth, not glamour."

A somber specter looms over the journalistic debate: If there are catastrophic mistakes in live reporting, perhaps leading to the loss of life, governments will be tempted to meddle with press freedom - perhaps with public support.

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